Character Blogs? Blah.

This guest post is written by Bradley (or Sebastianky) of An Obtrusive Reader. He is one of those rare kinds: an actual blook reader. Here he talks about some of the things that irk him as he reads the web’s fiction.

Character blogs aren't the only possible form of blog fiction.If you keep up with web fiction blogs, I’m sure you’ve run across a little tidbit that’s fast becoming an adage: “Don’t write a traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end – write a blog for a fictional character.”

Pay this no heed.

I am not an author, so I won’t condescend to tell the writers how to write. However, I am an avid reader, especially of web fiction and blooks, and I can tell you what I want to read – and what I want is something engaging. Regardless of your chosen medium, you cannot be a successful writer unless your readers want to keep reading. To a certain extent, then, any author is trying to write a page-turner (page-scroller?).

Does that goal require you to write in any particular way? No. Nor are you limited by your medium; we can look at successful writers from the age of print to prove it. Hemmingway and Cummings, Joyce and Asimov, Poe and Shakespeare – they wrote on many subjects, in many ways, in many formats – short stories, poems, novels, crazy-stream-of-consciousness-novels, plays – but all in the same medium: slabs of dead tree bound together.

Should, then, digital media be somehow more limiting? Ought web writers have to react to traditional media by refusing to write anything resembling a novel? What about serials? They’re nothing new – Charles Dickens was famous for his serials.

What I’m getting at is that format is less important than it’s made out to be. Writing for the net opens up some possibilities that wouldn’t be very practical in print, but it doesn’t restrict you much as an author. Don’t believe me? Check out Dirty Red Kiss – an online novel with a beginning, middle, and end. And it’s excellent. I read the whole thing in one sitting. Better yet, check out Wowio – they’re publishing online serials and webcomics, but the majority of their offerings appear to be public domain and small press books – prose originally written for the print media. And they seem to be doing pretty well.

To sum up, write what you want, write what you like to read, but don’t write what other people tell you to. Go ahead, take advantage of the new things that the internet makes feasable: short fiction, microfiction, fictional blogs, etc.

Just don’t forget that lots of people want to read lots of different things – and there’s plenty of room for everybody on the internet.

Bradley reviews all kinds of online fiction at his blog, An Obtrusive Reader. He reads like a man starved (of books) and in the process has created a wonderful repository of the best fiction the web has to offer.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://backpackingonlittlemoney.wordpress.com/book-1/chapter-one/ Backpacking On Little Money

    I totally agree here. People love stories. We are hardwired to love stories. No matter what century it is. So blog or no blog. New tech or old tech. It’s the story that grabs you. Stuff with a beginning, middle, and end. Great post.

    -J
    Backpacking On Little Money

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  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I found the adage of writing a character blog to be stifling, at best. The entire idea of blogging a persona day in, day out, is very tiring for me, considering I already blog me in my personal journal.

    Whereas writing a story from start to end is … satisfying. You just feel happy when you’re done with telling a tale, and you pray that people enjoy it when they read it.

  • Derek Henkel

    Sebastianky,
    Thanks for the kind words.
    It is appreciated.

  • http://www.billhilton.biz/blog Bill Hilton

    Eli wrote: “The entire idea of blogging a persona day in, day out, is very tiring for me.”

    You’re not Horton, are you? :)

    @Bradley – I think you’ve more or less hit the nub of the problem. Very much online fiction is written by people obsessed by the idea of the novel.

    The interesting thing about literary forms is that the _technology_tends_to_come_first. The novel form developed as movable type and cheaper paper drove down the price of books. The form was invented to exploit the technology. The same with screenplays: moving pictures are invented, THEN a fictional form arrives to exploit it.

    Right now we have a brand new technology – the web – that has huge storytelling potential, but for which an adequate form has yet to arrive.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Bill: *throws head back and laughs*

    Of course not! What Horton does is untouchable!

    ;P

  • http://unicornbait.blogspot.com Windvein

    J.M. Tyree would disagree with you. He says, “The great American blog novel — yet to be written as far as I know — will not be a novel written on a blog but instead be the blog of a compelling fictional character, or a community of interacting invented literary personas.” http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article10120701.aspx

    Only reason I know this article, is because of Blooking Central. http://blooking.blogspot.com/2007/12/print-is-dead.html

    Personally, I agree with Bradley; people will read anything if it’s engaging, whether it’s a standard novel format or something in a diary format. The written word can support many different forms.

    But the written word doesn’t need much support. The web does have a lot of potential as Mr. Hilton points out, but the written word doesn’t exactly need that potential to be potent. Just making the words available online can be enough.

    But I heartily agree with Bradley on one point: No matter the format, every story MUST HAVE a beginning, a middle, and an end! I will not read something that I do not know will end. I’ve gotten burned by WIPs that were abandoned.

  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    @J:
    Thanks!

    @Wincing.at.light:
    I’m glad to be a cuddly, hugable exception. :D
    But really. I see where you’re coming from, but I think it’s largely a matter of adjustment – a little bit by individuals, but mostly by way of generations.

    That is, I think the younger generations have grown up slash are growing up so connected to their computers and the internet that it will seem like a minor thing to read novels and the like on the web.

    Does that mean that I think the demand for real, hold-in-your-hand dead tree books will disappear, or even plummet? No. Not in my lifetime anyway.

    @Derek:
    Of course. You’re the one who wrote the engaging prose.
    You can see more of what I think about your story here: http://obtrusive.blogspot.com/2007/12/dirty-red-kiss.html
    if you like

    @Bill:
    Thank you.
    I do beg to differ on one point, though. I don’t think an *adequate* form has yet to arrive – I think a *standardized* form has yet to arrive. And I plan to enjoy the chaotic muck that’s around until it does.

  • http://wincingatlight.com wincing.at.light

    I’d also like to point out that one of the big things that seems to be missing from this movement is chicks. That’s completely non-facetious.

    The commentators on blooks that I seem to find are all men. What’s up with that? Are the women actually spending their time writing fiction while we philosophize about it?

    I only ask this because the women I know seem to 1) do a lot more reading than the men, and 2) do a lot more talking about what they’re reading (unless it’s a technical manual or porn) than men.

    Given that “regular” female readers (as the titles pushed print market bears out) out-read men something like 3:1 — which may be a completely made up statistic, but I’m too lazy to look up a verification site — asking where they are on this issue seems like an important question. If blooks (or really, any electronic fiction) are going to take off, we’re going to need women.

    But maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. I’ve never had much luck with women.

    D.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I must admit you got me chuckling aloud, Darren. I can think of a few people who’d kill you for saying we don’t have chicks.

    =D

  • http://wincingatlight.com wincing.at.light

    I knew I could count on you to set me straight, Eli. :)

  • http://www.alexandraerin.com Alexandra Erin

    As one of what is apparently a very few full-time professional “blookers” (I would love for somebody to correct me on that! I know there’s the potential for profit… the publishing industry complains that they’re losing revenue to free content online. Who’s following that money, folks? It’s there for the taking!), I agree wholeheartedly with the advice “write what you want.”

    The internet allows you to be incredibly successful marketing to a niche. The best way to market to a niche is to do so authentically. The best way to do so authentically is to not even bother trying. We’re all in a niche.

    Write EXACTLY what you want, without caring if it will appeal to everybody, and you will find yourself deeply appreciated by people who marvel at having found something that spoke to them so specifically.

    I do think part of the adage holds true, though not as an absolute… the “Don’t write a traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end.” There’s a lot of potential in that sentence.

    Some people read books because they want to know how the story ends. Others read hoping that it never does. A print novel can’t cater to the second group as well as a web novel can.

  • http://www.billhilton.biz/blog Bill Hilton

    The more I think about this – and I’ve also read quite a few of the comments on Tales of Mu – the more I think a comparison with Dickens is a good one.

    We’re accustomed to thinking of Bleak House or David Copperfield as ‘novels’, when, in fact, they’re not: like much successful web fiction, they’re serials.

    What we know of Dickens’ planning methods suggests that his characters and storylines grew as the individual serials grew. He usually planned in detail a couple of installments in advance. Even then, his planning wasn’t concrete. His notes are full of question marks and hints of alternative suggestions.

    The classic example is his last serial, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Gallons of critical ink has been spilt over the question of who murdered Edwin Drood, but the answer is right there in Dickens’ notes (which are included in the Penguin edition): he didn’t know the identity of the murderer himself, because he was waiting to see how the installments panned out. The story was only planned in a loose way.

    That approach may seem casual to us, largely because the stories we’re most familiar with – Hollywood movies – are so meticulously planned.

    You might say that Dickens was a gardener. He grew his story from idea seeds, knowing roughly how they would turn out, but not exactly. Equally, you might say that many modern writers, especially screenwriters, are architects. They plan their plot in detail, in advance.

    The success of online fiction may depend on us getting back to the looser, improvisatory approach that Dickens took.

  • http://www.alexandraerin.com Alexandra Erin

    Hmmm. I would agree. And further, I would suggest that this may be why it takes so long for many to write “A Novel”, while a serialist produces greater volumes of material. Simply put, if you know exactly what you want/need to write, it will take you longer to do so.

    I usually have an idea where a certain chain of events is heading, but when I see the end of a particular line I don’t think, “Okay, now I need to work out the most precise chain of events that will bring that about, within n amount of pages.” I just say, “I can’t wait until that gets here.”

    Sometimes something else happens first and derails the expected outcome, but… such is life, so why should such not be fiction as well?

    In point of fact, I’m finding as I proceed with the current plotline in Tales of MU that I may have (once again) prematurely named the current book. The events which I’m calling “Class Acts” are still happening, but it’s starting to seem like a whole book’s worth of interesting events may happen before them.

  • http://www.billhilton.biz/blog Bill Hilton

    @Alexandra: “Simply put, if you know exactly what you want/need to write, it will take you longer to do so.”

    That’s true. It’s easy to get ‘paralysis of analysis’ – to get so tied up with creating an elegant, efficient story that the whole thing takes longer than it should.

    I’ve written a lot of drama for students. When I first started I actually read several screenwriting books (McKee et. al). They’re very useful, but they really promote the obsessive, planning-intensive approach.

    I adopted that approach and wrote some material that was very popular with actors and audiences. But afterwards I realised I didn’t need to spend so much time doing it.

    One of the things I learned is that if you have strong characters they’ll almost write the story for you. Henry James’ famous equation, character = action, is really true.

    Just thought of another example of a famous writer who apparently didn’t do much planning – Shakespeare.

    In the intro to the First Folio, Heminges and Condell wrote of him: ‘…he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: and what he thought, he vttered with that easinesse, that wee haue scarse receiued from him a blot in his papers.’

    BTW, @Sebatinsky: “I do beg to differ on one point, though. I don’t think an *adequate* form has yet to arrive – I think a *standardized* form has yet to arrive.”

    Yep, I’ve decided you’re right. Perhaps another way of putting it might be to say that the web is still in the early stages of settling down as a storytelling medium.

    @Eli: sorry about the epic comment length. I didn’t have time to write a short one…

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  • http://obtrusive.blogspot.com Sebatinsky

    So, I’m very excited about all of the conversation that’s been going on here! This is exactly the sort of thing that I am hoping will begin to cement us into a real community (OK, well, some of you have some fairly established relationships already, but *I’m* a relative newcomer). Huzzah!

    @Windvein:
    Indeed, it was Tyree’s article (which I also found via blooking central), and others like it, that I was responding to.

    I’m not, however, saying that a story must have a beginning, middle and end. I was mostly trying to point out that if Tyree is right in his prediction, he will be right only by accident – there are many other forms of prose that people will (and do!) read and enjoy greatly on the internet, and any of them could be the form taken by “The Great American Blog Novel,” if such a thing is ever written.

    Also, I’m looking forward to reading your cleverly named story :D.

    @ Lexy Erin:
    It’s great to see you commenting here! I’ve been following MU for quite a while, and I do my best to keep up with your other writing. I hope to (figuratively) see more of you around. :)

    @Bill:
    Thanks for expounding on Dickens’ serials! You definitely have more knowledge in that arena than I, and the lesson was much appreciated.

  • http://www.alexandraerin.com Alexandra Erin

    On the topic of the post, I should mention that my most famous and popular creation is a first-person narrative in a very idiosyncratic and highly introspective form… such that it might have been written as a blog. I actually toyed with making it one. In the end, I decided that made it too removed from the action. Everything is already being filtered through Mackenzie’s perceptions and biases. I feel if the character were writing down her thoughts instead of reporting them to The Generalized Internal Audience, she’d be even more self-censoring than she already is.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I came back online today (Christmas, apparently, is one of the few days I’m completely free) and found a great discussion going on here.

    My apologies for not joining in earlier. The rest of the blame must be leveled at Alexandra – I spent an hour or so reading Tales Of MU when I should’ve been thinking about your thoughts, ideas and points.

    Grr addictive reading grr.

    Alright, the things I’ve been thinking about as I read though the above discussions:

    1, I agree wholeheartedly that it’s a lot easier to write when you don’t plan. Thank God there are other people who vehemently believe in that: I’m a new convert, you see, and this makes my life so much easier.

    Bill, I heart you for saying this:

    One of the things I learned is that if you have strong characters they’ll almost write the story for you. Henry James’ famous equation, character = action, is really true.

    2, On the topic of reading a story from the beginning to the end: I believe people will read anything that’s been passionately and honestly crafted. I’ll let this post do the talking for me: Amber Simmons makes her point so much better than I do.

    3, Alexandra: isn’t Tales of Mu already a blog? Arghh, whatever. It’s just too good to stop reading … who cares what medium it’s in.

  • Alexandra Erin

    A blog is the publication medium, but I’m not representing it as “This chapter is Mackenzie’s first entry, this is her second…” It’s my blog in which I present a story, not the character’s.

  • http://wincingatlight.com wincing.at.light

    I completely agree with the blog as “publication medium”. What a blog offers over the traditional website publication (other than ease of use for the author) is 1) the ability for readers to feel like their reading is interactive (via comments), and 2) the interest/investment inherent in the notion of serialization.

    I know that I’m getting as much traffic on one-chapter-at-a-time posts as I’m getting on the full downloads. I don’t know how much overlap there is between users, but that’s okay.

    Re: planning out fiction

    I write by the seat of my pants. The closest thing I have to an organization scheme is a series of post-it notes with cool ideas and snatches of dialogue. I learned a long time ago that if I plan a narrative out completely and prepare an outline, I don’t ever get around to writing the story. Why would I want to invest the months to write a story that I already know the ending to?

    Finding out “what happens next” is as much fun for the writer as it is for the reader.

  • http://www.billhilton.biz/blog Bill Hilton

    @Sebatinsky – thanks! Mind you, I wouldn’t call it “expounding” so much as “droning on”. Immediately after leaving university I was an English teacher for a few years, and sometimes I just revert into education mode…

    @Eli – ta very much. I was using the equation as a shorthand for James’ idea. The full quotation is:

    “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it..?”

    It’s taken from James’ essay The Art of Fiction. The most readable online version I can find is here:

    http://www.mantex.co.uk/ou/aa810/james-05.htm

    On the general principle of planning, I’m not sure it’s best to avoid it entirely. For many writers, I think a lot of planning goes on mentally without much being written down. Novelists from Dickens to Terry Pratchett (hmm, two quite similar writers in some ways) have recommended long walks as a way of coming up with ideas and developing characters, which suggests some kind of internal process.

    Example of a novelist who does a lot of written planning (or so he’s said): Philip Pullman.

    I suppose an interesting comparison is with screenwriters for soaps. They have to write very much by the seats of their pants, but they still tend to operate within pre-planned story arcs of varying lengths, filling in the details as they go. One of the ways they come up with ideas is to cannibalise classic plots: they’ll have a “Romeo and Juliet” story running side by side with a “Lear” story.

    So I think there’s seat of your pants and seat of your pants: I think more planning (at least of the internal, mental form) goes into a lot of writing than sometimes seems to be the case. For the writer of web fiction, it’s a matter of striking a balance between the competing demands of structure and immediacy.

  • http://www.alexandraerin.com Alexandra Erin

    I don’t eschew it entirely… for every hour I spend writing, I spend three more thinking about it. But it’s more “envisioning” than composing, and if what I end up writing differs from what I envisioned, I don’t try to force myself back on plan.

    Often I know that some event or scene will come to pass in the story… unless something else comes along and derails it. It’s like looking at something in real life, in the absence of perfect information, you can make an informed guess which, based on everything you know and everything you can see, is what -will- come to pass… but something you couldn’t have known about is part of the equation.

    In the end, my “pre-writing” time is a lot like running the characters through simulations to find out what’s likely to happen… and then when I get down to writing, I find out what actually does.

  • http://wincingatlight.com wincing.at.light

    I think you’re right, Bill, with regards to how planning works. When I say I’m a “seat of my pants” writer, I mean it literally.

    Most of my simulations (as Alexandra put it so well) happen on my hour commute to and from work. By the time I arrive home, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen next because I’ve spent the time thinking about what’s the most logical reaction of my characters to the current situation they’ve found themselves in.

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  • http://criticalmass.crazydreams.org/ CrazyDreamer

    I’m almost in favor of keeping the spam comment above this one for the sheer ridiculousness of some of the prose. Almost. (If you don’t see any spam above this comment, it’s been deleted, obviously.)

    @wincing.at.light: You’re “a ‘seat of my pants’ writer” literally? Does that mean that you write on the seat of your pants or with them?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Oh, I am so keeping it. And if anybody else wants to know what purple prose is …

    *points up*

  • http://del.icio.us/pizdos eraguePlattam

    I’d prefer reading in my native language, because my knowledge of your languange is no so well.

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  • http://www.looseleafstories.com E.D. Lindquist

    I had an idea for a blog story, the fictional character blog. I tired it out, but it just never took on any life. When I tried to make it look and feel like a real blog, it became overburdened and clumsy with inane details. When I tried to strip it down to the relevant story elements, it became unbelievable as a blog.

    In short, it sucked. Won’t be trying that again. Glad it seems to have died out by now.